Showing posts tagged as "bahrain"

Showing posts tagged bahrain

3 Jun
CrisisWatch N°118  |  (01 Jun 2013)
The Syrian crisis continues to draw in its neighbours, threatening to set off a wider regional conflict. Israel launched its first major strike inside Syria, sending jets reportedly to target Iranian missiles bound for Hizbollah. The Syrian regime threatened to retaliate immediately and harshly to any further attack, and to turn the Golan Heights into a new front against Israel. The EU lifted its arms embargo on Syria but said there were no immediate plans to arm the rebels. Russia’s decision to honour its 2010 contract to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime prompted calls from the U.S., France and Israel to reconsider. Israel’s defence minister suggested Israel could resort to force to prevent delivery of the weapons. The U.S. and Russia agreed to convene a new peace conference in Geneva in June, but it remains uncertain whether the parties will come to seek compromise. (See our recent commentary in French).
Lebanon is becoming ever more deeply implicated in the Syrian conflict. Hizbollah extended more overt and extensive military support to the Syrian regime, including fighting against rebels in al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border, and for the first time openly declaring its military support to the regime. Lebanese Sunni Islamists are increasingly backing Syria’s rebels. Tensions increased within Lebanon, with sectarian violence between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli reaching levels not seen since the country’s civil war.
In Iraq more than a thousand people were killed in sectarian attacks and bombings fuelled by the country’s deepening political crisis, making May the country’s deadliest month in five years. Hopes for a political breakthrough faded as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi blamed each other for mounting violence. The government’s crackdown on Sunni protesters continued to spur a re-emerging insurgency and retaliatory attacks, leaving the country again teetering on the brink of civil conflict.
In Bahrain the Shiite opposition al-Wifaq announced its withdrawal from the National Dialogue for two weeks after government security forces raided the house of the most prominent Shiite cleric Issa Qassem. In the face of political impasse, al-Wifaq called for intensified protests ahead of polls scheduled for next year.
In Madagascar, presidential elections scheduled for July and intended to end four years of political deadlock were postponed after transitional president Andry Rajoelina refused to step down ahead of polling, violating the electoral law. The September 2011 transition roadmap appeared to be unravelling as former first lady Lalao Ravalomanana, Rajoelina and former president Didier Ratsiraka all announced that they would contest the election, and the electoral court validated their applications. Rajoelina and Ratsiraka had pledged not to run, while Lalao Ravalomanana’s candidacy is widely viewed as a proxy for her husband, former president Marc Ravalomanana, who had also promised not to compete. The African Union and the Southern African Development Community said they would not recognise the outcome of the elections should any of these candidates win, and the UN said its continued support is contingent on compliance with the roadmap.
Protests against Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine escalated and took a violent turn in late May. Protesters demanding an end to alleged environmental pollution from operations at the mine and calling for it to be nationalised blocked the road to the mine and cut off power. The government declared a state of emergency after police clashed with some 3,000 protesters who were attempting to storm mining company offices. The mine is one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest sources of foreign earnings, and disruption to its operations could damage the country’s faltering economy. Despite the protesters’ environmental demands, much of the unrest appears to have been organised by the nationalist Ata Jurt party. Protestors in the southern city of Jalal-Abad seized government buildings demanding the release of three jailed Ata Jurt members.
In a boost to Colombia’s peace process, the government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, announced on 26 May that they had reached an agreement on rural development, the first agenda item in peace talks which began over six months ago (see our recent blog post). President Juan Manuel Santos said that the four main points include access to and use of land, rural development programs, health and education for the rural poor, and food security. The talks will now turn to political participation. Hopes that peace talks with Colombia’s second guerrilla group the ELN (National Liberation Army) would begin in May suffered a setback, however, when the ELN killed eleven soldiers in an ambush in Norte de Santander.
In Myanmar the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation agreed a seven-point peace pact at the end of the month. The talks, convened for first time in the government-controlled capital of Kachin state, had previously been in deadlock. The deal means that in principle hostilities with all major armed groups in the country have stopped. Crisis Group identifies a Conflict Resolution Opportunity for Myanmar. The month also saw the Rakhine State government announce it was reactivating an earlier local directive imposing a two-child limit for families in Muslim-majority areas of the state, prompting local and international condemnation. There was a further outbreak of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence at the end of the month, this time in the northern town Lashio; one person was reported killed (see our recent blog post and commentary).
FULL CRISISWATCH
Photo: James Gordon/Flickr

CrisisWatch N°118  |  (01 Jun 2013)

The Syrian crisis continues to draw in its neighbours, threatening to set off a wider regional conflict. Israel launched its first major strike inside Syria, sending jets reportedly to target Iranian missiles bound for Hizbollah. The Syrian regime threatened to retaliate immediately and harshly to any further attack, and to turn the Golan Heights into a new front against Israel. The EU lifted its arms embargo on Syria but said there were no immediate plans to arm the rebels. Russia’s decision to honour its 2010 contract to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Assad regime prompted calls from the U.S., France and Israel to reconsider. Israel’s defence minister suggested Israel could resort to force to prevent delivery of the weapons. The U.S. and Russia agreed to convene a new peace conference in Geneva in June, but it remains uncertain whether the parties will come to seek compromise. (See our recent commentary in French).

Lebanon is becoming ever more deeply implicated in the Syrian conflict. Hizbollah extended more overt and extensive military support to the Syrian regime, including fighting against rebels in al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border, and for the first time openly declaring its military support to the regime. Lebanese Sunni Islamists are increasingly backing Syria’s rebels. Tensions increased within Lebanon, with sectarian violence between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli reaching levels not seen since the country’s civil war.

In Iraq more than a thousand people were killed in sectarian attacks and bombings fuelled by the country’s deepening political crisis, making May the country’s deadliest month in five years. Hopes for a political breakthrough faded as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi blamed each other for mounting violence. The government’s crackdown on Sunni protesters continued to spur a re-emerging insurgency and retaliatory attacks, leaving the country again teetering on the brink of civil conflict.

In Bahrain the Shiite opposition al-Wifaq announced its withdrawal from the National Dialogue for two weeks after government security forces raided the house of the most prominent Shiite cleric Issa Qassem. In the face of political impasse, al-Wifaq called for intensified protests ahead of polls scheduled for next year.

In Madagascar, presidential elections scheduled for July and intended to end four years of political deadlock were postponed after transitional president Andry Rajoelina refused to step down ahead of polling, violating the electoral law. The September 2011 transition roadmap appeared to be unravelling as former first lady Lalao Ravalomanana, Rajoelina and former president Didier Ratsiraka all announced that they would contest the election, and the electoral court validated their applications. Rajoelina and Ratsiraka had pledged not to run, while Lalao Ravalomanana’s candidacy is widely viewed as a proxy for her husband, former president Marc Ravalomanana, who had also promised not to compete. The African Union and the Southern African Development Community said they would not recognise the outcome of the elections should any of these candidates win, and the UN said its continued support is contingent on compliance with the roadmap.

Protests against Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine escalated and took a violent turn in late May. Protesters demanding an end to alleged environmental pollution from operations at the mine and calling for it to be nationalised blocked the road to the mine and cut off power. The government declared a state of emergency after police clashed with some 3,000 protesters who were attempting to storm mining company offices. The mine is one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest sources of foreign earnings, and disruption to its operations could damage the country’s faltering economy. Despite the protesters’ environmental demands, much of the unrest appears to have been organised by the nationalist Ata Jurt party. Protestors in the southern city of Jalal-Abad seized government buildings demanding the release of three jailed Ata Jurt members.

In a boost to Colombia’s peace process, the government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, announced on 26 May that they had reached an agreement on rural development, the first agenda item in peace talks which began over six months ago (see our recent blog post). President Juan Manuel Santos said that the four main points include access to and use of land, rural development programs, health and education for the rural poor, and food security. The talks will now turn to political participation. Hopes that peace talks with Colombia’s second guerrilla group the ELN (National Liberation Army) would begin in May suffered a setback, however, when the ELN killed eleven soldiers in an ambush in Norte de Santander.

In Myanmar the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation agreed a seven-point peace pact at the end of the month. The talks, convened for first time in the government-controlled capital of Kachin state, had previously been in deadlock. The deal means that in principle hostilities with all major armed groups in the country have stopped. Crisis Group identifies a Conflict Resolution Opportunity for Myanmar. The month also saw the Rakhine State government announce it was reactivating an earlier local directive imposing a two-child limit for families in Muslim-majority areas of the state, prompting local and international condemnation. There was a further outbreak of Buddhist-on-Muslim violence at the end of the month, this time in the northern town Lashio; one person was reported killed (see our recent blog post and commentary).

FULL CRISISWATCH

Photo: James Gordon/Flickr

11 Feb
Mistrust overshadows Bahrain national dialogue | AFP via GlobalPost
For International Crisis Group analyst Claire Beaugrand, each party in Bahrain is “testing the intentions of the other,” and the “initial positions of both sides are very different.”
The opposition is “very pessimistic but does not want to make any mistakes by which it would bear responsibility for the dialogue’s failure again,” she said.
The government, meanwhile, “seems to be in a stronger position after it has managed to control the situation for the past two years.”
FULL ARTICLE (AFP via GlobalPost)
Photo: abcdz2000/Flickr

Mistrust overshadows Bahrain national dialogue | AFP via GlobalPost

For International Crisis Group analyst Claire Beaugrand, each party in Bahrain is “testing the intentions of the other,” and the “initial positions of both sides are very different.”

The opposition is “very pessimistic but does not want to make any mistakes by which it would bear responsibility for the dialogue’s failure again,” she said.

The government, meanwhile, “seems to be in a stronger position after it has managed to control the situation for the past two years.”

FULL ARTICLE (AFP via GlobalPost)

Photo: abcdz2000/Flickr

6 Nov
Two killed in Bahrain ‘terrorist’ explosions, authorities say | Los Angeles Times
By Emily Alpert
Two foreigners were killed and a third injured when a series of explosions rocked Bahrain, government officials said Monday, a new eruption of violence that authorities labeled as terrorist acts bent on destabilizing the divided country.
The three men, all Asians, were victims of homemade bombs, one man dying after kicking a device and another killed near a movie theater, Bahraini police told state media.
The third man, a cleaner, was reported to be in serious condition. Like many Gulf countries, Bahrain brings in a large number of foreign laborers from Asia, including many workers from Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia.
FULL ARTICLE (Los Angeles Times)
Photo: Zeep van der Kist/Flickr

Two killed in Bahrain ‘terrorist’ explosions, authorities say | Los Angeles Times

By Emily Alpert

Two foreigners were killed and a third injured when a series of explosions rocked Bahrain, government officials said Monday, a new eruption of violence that authorities labeled as terrorist acts bent on destabilizing the divided country.

The three men, all Asians, were victims of homemade bombs, one man dying after kicking a device and another killed near a movie theater, Bahraini police told state media.

The third man, a cleaner, was reported to be in serious condition. Like many Gulf countries, Bahrain brings in a large number of foreign laborers from Asia, including many workers from Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia.

FULL ARTICLE (Los Angeles Times)

Photo: Zeep van der Kist/Flickr

8 May
NYRB | Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict? 
Joost Hiltermann 
Until 2011, the tiny island nation of Bahrain was mainly known to the outside world for one thing: an annual Formula One car race, the first of its kind in the Middle East, that signified the country’s arrival among the community of stable advanced nations. But then came last spring’s popular uprising and brutal government crackdown, and a different side of this Gulf monarchy came to light: the longstanding grievances held by many Bahrainis, including above all members of the island’s Shia majority, against its Sunni ruling family, who in turn seem prepared to use force to hold onto power. The regime prevailed, and after inviting an investigation of human rights abuses last fall, it suggested it was bringing the country back to normal; this spring’s Grand Prix would show the world it had succeeded.
But as I discovered during a five-day visit shortly before the race, nothing could be further from the truth. Talking to dozens of people both in Manama and in smaller communities outside the capital, I was told again and again that the situation was becoming worse, not better: police forces have been using large quantities of tear gas against protesters, repeatedly causing deaths; police brutality had not ended but moved from police stations to alleyways and undeclared detention centers; young activists are increasingly resorting to Molotov cocktails, subverting the peaceful nature of the protests; and the government has not opened any dialogue with the opposition or offered hope for political reform. Protests occurred nightly in Shiite villages and neighborhoods during my stay, and a veritable battle of graffiti took place on the walls of shops and houses, with protesters writing slogans calling for the end of the regime, police erasing them with a quick coat of paint, and activists scribbling new ones seemingly before the paint had dried.
And so while the Grand Prix, Bahrain’s single prestige event, did take place in late April, it happened amid clouds of tear gas and wafts of smoke from firebombs, as well as an outcry over the death of a protester apparently as a result of shotgun pellets fired by riot police. On the day of the event, a political activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, was into his eleventh week of a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment on allegations of plotting to overthrow the state during last year’s protests. (As of this writing, the hunger strike is now in its ninetieth day.)
Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But now, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.
Consider the recent cases of Ali and Omar: two Bahraini boys, one a teenager, the other a pre-schooler. Ali, of course, is one of the more common Shia names while Omar is a common Sunni name. Their stories, much embellished in the retelling, have been wielded by each side in the conflict to attack the other side.
In March, the Bahraini Internet was full of Twitter comments about 4-year-old Omar, who was said to have been forced to kiss his (Shia) teacher’s feet simply because of his name. The historical Omar was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and Islam’s second Caliph. To Shia, he was a usurper, who muscled aside Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, in the succession crisis that erupted following Muhammad’s death.
The teacher denied the accusation, but when it was leaked to the press that the school had launched an investigation (after a complaint lodged by Omar’s parents), the Ministry of Education became involved, and the matter, quickly amplified by social media, soon became a national controversy. The school was forced to suspend the teacher, and a picture of her husband and his daily route to work were circulated on Twitter in an attempt to intimidate the couple.
Ali, the other boy, is a 16-year-old from a Shia village who, according to the Shia version of a story that has gone viral, was picked up from the street by intelligence agents, who tortured him in their attempt to turn him into an informer. When Ali went to the police to file a claim, they accused him of giving a false deposition and having inflicted his own injuries. In the ensuing Twitter melee, Sunni activists highlighted the case as an example of the Shia opposition’s use of false evidence to denounce police brutality. They also claimed the opposition was highlighting the case to cover up its embarrassment over Omar’s tale.
I first heard about Ali and Omar from another Omar, a young Bahraini professional who is not aligned with any faction or movement, and is secular in outlook. What is more, while his given name suggests he is Sunni, he is in fact a Shia for the simple reason that his father is Shia. Like so many other urban Bahrainis, Omar is the offspring of a mixed marriage, and he would never refer to himself in sectarian terms. Indeed, I have come across many Sunni Alis during my peregrinations in the Middle East, and quite a few Shia Omars, all proud owners of names redolent of Islamic history without the political baggage that some sectarian leaders seek to burden them with.
In fact, this overtly sectarian discourse has far less to do with longstanding communal differences than with the regime’s attempt to deflect attention from its own record of mismanagement and corruption. The fact that the leading opposition parties are Shia Islamist in their outlook has not helped. The largest group, Al-Wefaq, has come under criticism from secular Bahrainis—Sunni or Shia—for its pursuit of a religiously-based conservative political agenda (regarding the status of women, for example, or the relationship between mosque and state). Moreover, many Sunnis accuse Al-Wefaq of being a local stand-in for Iran’s theocratic regime. From its side, the ruling Al Khalifa family and the government it has installed have exploited Sunni unease with Al-Wefaq to mobilize the Sunni community. By whipping up sectarian sentiments, the government hopes to change the perception of the conflict from one that pits a popular pro-democracy movement against an authoritarian regime to one of a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia, with the strong government needed to maintain order.
Because of extensive intermarriage, however, and the fact that Bahrain’s native population is so small (about half a million), invoking a Shia threat alone has not sufficed. As Munira Fakhro, a secular pro-democracy activist, put it when I met her in Manama in late March, “Hatred comes from fear. This is what we had in Muharraq [a predominantly Sunni town next to the capital] when I grew up. But then we moved into a mixed neighborhood in Manama and I discovered they [Shia] are people like us.” Notwithstanding the dismissals (and subsequent partial reinstatement) of Shia professionals and ongoing mutual hostility, Sunni-Shia interaction is what defines daily life at the workplace and in many neighborhoods.
The regime’s use of an Iranian bogeyman has been particularly effective. One of the first signs to greet a visitor driving from the international airport in Muharraq to the capital exclaims in English: “Down Down Iranian Conspiracy.” The argument, conveyed to me on numerous occasions during my visit, is a marvel of simplicity: Unlike Sunnis, the Shia have a religious leader, or marje’a, a source of emulation. Al-Wefaq’s leaders derive their inspiration from their Bahraini marje’a, Sheikh Isa Qasem. He, in turn, allegedly is a follower of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Guide. Ergo, Iran is the hidden hand behind the street protests, the escalating use of Molotov cocktails, and the general effort to bring down the regime. In this reading, Al-Wefaq’s call for reform is a merely a subterfuge to cover its real aim of establishing an Iranian-style theocracy.
Yet for all this there is no indication of active Iranian interference in Bahraini politics, or of Bahrain’s Shiites looking to Khamenei as their guide. (In fact, Sheikh Isa Qasem is generally thought among Shia to be a follower of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, who is a quietist.) Even the United States, which has its own sharply adversarial relationship with Tehran, has repeatedly stated it has seen no evidence of direct Iranian meddling, and has reminded its interlocutors in Manama that bottling up legitimate demands for political reform could push disenfranchised Shia into Tehran’s arms—a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So where are these allegations coming from? One explanation is that there has been a marked shift in the power center of the regime itself, with those who want to seek accommodation with the opposition increasingly sidelined by hard-liners. When the opposition movement began last year, the moderate Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his allies were considered a leading force for reform within the government. But his failure, in March 2011, to persuade Al-Wefaq and other opposition societies to agree to a dialogue with the government on reform fatally undermined his position.
The Crown Prince’s eclipse is the principal untold story of Bahrain’s aborted Arab Spring. In recent years, he had been on a quest to loosen Bahrain’s dependence on Saudi Arabian oil and weaken Saudi Arabia’s friends within the Bahraini royal family. To this end, he established the Economic Development Board (whose leadership constituted a virtual parallel cabinet), as well as Mumtalakat, a sovereign wealth fund designed to generate revenue from sources other than oil; the Labor Market Regulatory Authority, an agency that inter alia seeks to reduce the gap between Bahraini and expat salaries; Tamkeen, a training fund to promote entrepreneurship; the Bahrain Polytechnic, which aims to create a skilled workforce that will allow for economic growth and diversification; and the Bahrain Teachers College.
Now, control over all of these institutions has been taken away from the Crown Prince and they are in the process of being refocused or reduced to empty shells. For regime hardliners, this has been a way to reinforce their own power base, which is backed by Saudi patronage. With escalating violence and no sign of a political breakthrough, those with influence in the regime are seeking a more intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf Arab (and Sunni) neighbors. Saudi troops are still present following their March 2011 invasion, hunkered down at some distance from the volatile urban terrain. Socially, Saudi weekenders use the island for wild indulgences forbidden at home: families flock to cinemas, women gather at malls to organize group drives, while men binge-drink and visit houses of ill repute, which now include major hotels, where prostitution is conspicuous. Local wisdom has it that it is better not to venture out on weekend nights in order to avoid drunken Saudi men and inexperienced female Saudi drivers.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain now propose to consummate the Gulf states’ security-based relationship, the Gulf Cooperation Council, into a political federation. But none of the Gulf monarchies has shown any interest in such an arrangement. The proposal, therefore, if it comes to anything, is more likely to produce a Saudi-Bahraini confederation, in which there would be little doubt where real power lies. Bahrain would become no more than a satrapy, with the Al Khalifa reduced to, at most, policing the island on behalf of the House of Saud—what in a sense it is already doing.
The ultimate irony is that in seeking to escape Iranian interference, the Al Khalifas are rushing headlong into a Saudi embrace. For Bahrainis themselves, this would likely mean even less freedom and more autocracy than before: the Saudi regime would want to keep tight control over this tiny spit of land within Iran’s military reach, and the introduction of its Wahhabi doctrine would put a swift end to the social liberties and free-wheeling cosmopolitanism to which ordinary Bahrainis have grown accustomed, exemplified by the island’s signature Formula One race. It is doubtful that either Bahrain’s Alis or its Omars would fare well under such an arrangement.
FULL ARTICLE (The New York Review of Books) 

NYRB | Bahrain: A New Sectarian Conflict? 

Joost Hiltermann 

Until 2011, the tiny island nation of Bahrain was mainly known to the outside world for one thing: an annual Formula One car race, the first of its kind in the Middle East, that signified the country’s arrival among the community of stable advanced nations. But then came last spring’s popular uprising and brutal government crackdown, and a different side of this Gulf monarchy came to light: the longstanding grievances held by many Bahrainis, including above all members of the island’s Shia majority, against its Sunni ruling family, who in turn seem prepared to use force to hold onto power. The regime prevailed, and after inviting an investigation of human rights abuses last fall, it suggested it was bringing the country back to normal; this spring’s Grand Prix would show the world it had succeeded.

But as I discovered during a five-day visit shortly before the race, nothing could be further from the truth. Talking to dozens of people both in Manama and in smaller communities outside the capital, I was told again and again that the situation was becoming worse, not better: police forces have been using large quantities of tear gas against protesters, repeatedly causing deaths; police brutality had not ended but moved from police stations to alleyways and undeclared detention centers; young activists are increasingly resorting to Molotov cocktails, subverting the peaceful nature of the protests; and the government has not opened any dialogue with the opposition or offered hope for political reform. Protests occurred nightly in Shiite villages and neighborhoods during my stay, and a veritable battle of graffiti took place on the walls of shops and houses, with protesters writing slogans calling for the end of the regime, police erasing them with a quick coat of paint, and activists scribbling new ones seemingly before the paint had dried.

And so while the Grand Prix, Bahrain’s single prestige event, did take place in late April, it happened amid clouds of tear gas and wafts of smoke from firebombs, as well as an outcry over the death of a protester apparently as a result of shotgun pellets fired by riot police. On the day of the event, a political activist, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, was into his eleventh week of a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment on allegations of plotting to overthrow the state during last year’s protests. (As of this writing, the hunger strike is now in its ninetieth day.)

Part of what makes the current situation in Bahrain so disturbing is that the regime has succeeded in replacing the narrative of a peaceful movement for reform with an altogether different one: that the country’s majority Shia are intent on driving the Sunnis off the island and handing the country over to Iran. Although last year’s protests were led by predominantly Shia opposition groups, Bahrain’s urban populations have long been mixed and the uprising also drew Sunnis dissatisfied with how the country was run. But now, by mobilizing Sunnis against Shia protesters on the claim the latter are manipulated by a predatory Iran, the regime has made Shia-Sunni hostility the conflict’s overriding theme.

Consider the recent cases of Ali and Omar: two Bahraini boys, one a teenager, the other a pre-schooler. Ali, of course, is one of the more common Shia names while Omar is a common Sunni name. Their stories, much embellished in the retelling, have been wielded by each side in the conflict to attack the other side.

In March, the Bahraini Internet was full of Twitter comments about 4-year-old Omar, who was said to have been forced to kiss his (Shia) teacher’s feet simply because of his name. The historical Omar was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions and Islam’s second Caliph. To Shia, he was a usurper, who muscled aside Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, in the succession crisis that erupted following Muhammad’s death.

The teacher denied the accusation, but when it was leaked to the press that the school had launched an investigation (after a complaint lodged by Omar’s parents), the Ministry of Education became involved, and the matter, quickly amplified by social media, soon became a national controversy. The school was forced to suspend the teacher, and a picture of her husband and his daily route to work were circulated on Twitter in an attempt to intimidate the couple.

Ali, the other boy, is a 16-year-old from a Shia village who, according to the Shia version of a story that has gone viral, was picked up from the street by intelligence agents, who tortured him in their attempt to turn him into an informer. When Ali went to the police to file a claim, they accused him of giving a false deposition and having inflicted his own injuries. In the ensuing Twitter melee, Sunni activists highlighted the case as an example of the Shia opposition’s use of false evidence to denounce police brutality. They also claimed the opposition was highlighting the case to cover up its embarrassment over Omar’s tale.

I first heard about Ali and Omar from another Omar, a young Bahraini professional who is not aligned with any faction or movement, and is secular in outlook. What is more, while his given name suggests he is Sunni, he is in fact a Shia for the simple reason that his father is Shia. Like so many other urban Bahrainis, Omar is the offspring of a mixed marriage, and he would never refer to himself in sectarian terms. Indeed, I have come across many Sunni Alis during my peregrinations in the Middle East, and quite a few Shia Omars, all proud owners of names redolent of Islamic history without the political baggage that some sectarian leaders seek to burden them with.

In fact, this overtly sectarian discourse has far less to do with longstanding communal differences than with the regime’s attempt to deflect attention from its own record of mismanagement and corruption. The fact that the leading opposition parties are Shia Islamist in their outlook has not helped. The largest group, Al-Wefaq, has come under criticism from secular Bahrainis—Sunni or Shia—for its pursuit of a religiously-based conservative political agenda (regarding the status of women, for example, or the relationship between mosque and state). Moreover, many Sunnis accuse Al-Wefaq of being a local stand-in for Iran’s theocratic regime. From its side, the ruling Al Khalifa family and the government it has installed have exploited Sunni unease with Al-Wefaq to mobilize the Sunni community. By whipping up sectarian sentiments, the government hopes to change the perception of the conflict from one that pits a popular pro-democracy movement against an authoritarian regime to one of a sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia, with the strong government needed to maintain order.

Because of extensive intermarriage, however, and the fact that Bahrain’s native population is so small (about half a million), invoking a Shia threat alone has not sufficed. As Munira Fakhro, a secular pro-democracy activist, put it when I met her in Manama in late March, “Hatred comes from fear. This is what we had in Muharraq [a predominantly Sunni town next to the capital] when I grew up. But then we moved into a mixed neighborhood in Manama and I discovered they [Shia] are people like us.” Notwithstanding the dismissals (and subsequent partial reinstatement) of Shia professionals and ongoing mutual hostility, Sunni-Shia interaction is what defines daily life at the workplace and in many neighborhoods.

The regime’s use of an Iranian bogeyman has been particularly effective. One of the first signs to greet a visitor driving from the international airport in Muharraq to the capital exclaims in English: “Down Down Iranian Conspiracy.” The argument, conveyed to me on numerous occasions during my visit, is a marvel of simplicity: Unlike Sunnis, the Shia have a religious leader, or marje’a, a source of emulation. Al-Wefaq’s leaders derive their inspiration from their Bahraini marje’a, Sheikh Isa Qasem. He, in turn, allegedly is a follower of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Guide. Ergo, Iran is the hidden hand behind the street protests, the escalating use of Molotov cocktails, and the general effort to bring down the regime. In this reading, Al-Wefaq’s call for reform is a merely a subterfuge to cover its real aim of establishing an Iranian-style theocracy.

Yet for all this there is no indication of active Iranian interference in Bahraini politics, or of Bahrain’s Shiites looking to Khamenei as their guide. (In fact, Sheikh Isa Qasem is generally thought among Shia to be a follower of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, who is a quietist.) Even the United States, which has its own sharply adversarial relationship with Tehran, has repeatedly stated it has seen no evidence of direct Iranian meddling, and has reminded its interlocutors in Manama that bottling up legitimate demands for political reform could push disenfranchised Shia into Tehran’s arms—a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So where are these allegations coming from? One explanation is that there has been a marked shift in the power center of the regime itself, with those who want to seek accommodation with the opposition increasingly sidelined by hard-liners. When the opposition movement began last year, the moderate Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and his allies were considered a leading force for reform within the government. But his failure, in March 2011, to persuade Al-Wefaq and other opposition societies to agree to a dialogue with the government on reform fatally undermined his position.

The Crown Prince’s eclipse is the principal untold story of Bahrain’s aborted Arab Spring. In recent years, he had been on a quest to loosen Bahrain’s dependence on Saudi Arabian oil and weaken Saudi Arabia’s friends within the Bahraini royal family. To this end, he established the Economic Development Board (whose leadership constituted a virtual parallel cabinet), as well as Mumtalakat, a sovereign wealth fund designed to generate revenue from sources other than oil; the Labor Market Regulatory Authority, an agency that inter alia seeks to reduce the gap between Bahraini and expat salaries; Tamkeen, a training fund to promote entrepreneurship; the Bahrain Polytechnic, which aims to create a skilled workforce that will allow for economic growth and diversification; and the Bahrain Teachers College.

Now, control over all of these institutions has been taken away from the Crown Prince and they are in the process of being refocused or reduced to empty shells. For regime hardliners, this has been a way to reinforce their own power base, which is backed by Saudi patronage. With escalating violence and no sign of a political breakthrough, those with influence in the regime are seeking a more intimate relationship with Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf Arab (and Sunni) neighbors. Saudi troops are still present following their March 2011 invasion, hunkered down at some distance from the volatile urban terrain. Socially, Saudi weekenders use the island for wild indulgences forbidden at home: families flock to cinemas, women gather at malls to organize group drives, while men binge-drink and visit houses of ill repute, which now include major hotels, where prostitution is conspicuous. Local wisdom has it that it is better not to venture out on weekend nights in order to avoid drunken Saudi men and inexperienced female Saudi drivers.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain now propose to consummate the Gulf states’ security-based relationship, the Gulf Cooperation Council, into a political federation. But none of the Gulf monarchies has shown any interest in such an arrangement. The proposal, therefore, if it comes to anything, is more likely to produce a Saudi-Bahraini confederation, in which there would be little doubt where real power lies. Bahrain would become no more than a satrapy, with the Al Khalifa reduced to, at most, policing the island on behalf of the House of Saud—what in a sense it is already doing.

The ultimate irony is that in seeking to escape Iranian interference, the Al Khalifas are rushing headlong into a Saudi embrace. For Bahrainis themselves, this would likely mean even less freedom and more autocracy than before: the Saudi regime would want to keep tight control over this tiny spit of land within Iran’s military reach, and the introduction of its Wahhabi doctrine would put a swift end to the social liberties and free-wheeling cosmopolitanism to which ordinary Bahrainis have grown accustomed, exemplified by the island’s signature Formula One race. It is doubtful that either Bahrain’s Alis or its Omars would fare well under such an arrangement.

FULL ARTICLE (The New York Review of Books) 

7 May
IPS | Calls Mount for Stronger U.S. Stance as Bahrain Resists Reform 
While the administration of President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on the al-Khalifa monarchy to follow through on recommendations made by an international commission last November, it has been reluctant to take stronger steps for fear of alienating Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s much larger neighbour, according to analysts here.The Pentagon also does not want to jeopardise its use of the island as the headquarters for its Fifth Fleet, particularly given its strategic location directly across the Gulf from Iran.The administration “should be telling the Bahraini government that time is short, and, if they don’t act, there will be an escalation on the U.S. side,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who was briefly detained by police at a demonstration during a visit to the Gulf kingdom last month.In addition to maintaining a de facto suspension on arms sales to Bahrain, he called for Washington to consider supporting a resolution on the situation at the U.N. Human Rights Council and denying visas to senior officials deemed responsible for abuses committed during the past year’s crackdown against the predominantly Shi’a opposition.Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Thurday, Malinowski also urged Washington to signal its willingness to consider moving the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain. “The military base is not sustainable as violence grows,” he said.Malinowski’s advice fell short of that of some Gulf specialists here, notably a former top Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst for Near Eastern and South Asia. Writing in the Financial Times just after the controversial running of the Formula One race in Bahrain last month, Emile Nakhleh urged the administration to begin pulling the fleet out now.
FULL ARTICLE (IPS) 
Photo:defense.gov/Wikimedia Commons  

IPS | Calls Mount for Stronger U.S. Stance as Bahrain Resists Reform 

While the administration of President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on the al-Khalifa monarchy to follow through on recommendations made by an international commission last November, it has been reluctant to take stronger steps for fear of alienating Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s much larger neighbour, according to analysts here.

The Pentagon also does not want to jeopardise its use of the island as the headquarters for its Fifth Fleet, particularly given its strategic location directly across the Gulf from Iran.

The administration “should be telling the Bahraini government that time is short, and, if they don’t act, there will be an escalation on the U.S. side,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who was briefly detained by police at a demonstration during a visit to the Gulf kingdom last month.

In addition to maintaining a de facto suspension on arms sales to Bahrain, he called for Washington to consider supporting a resolution on the situation at the U.N. Human Rights Council and denying visas to senior officials deemed responsible for abuses committed during the past year’s crackdown against the predominantly Shi’a opposition.

Speaking at a forum sponsored by the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) Thurday, Malinowski also urged Washington to signal its willingness to consider moving the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain. “The military base is not sustainable as violence grows,” he said.

Malinowski’s advice fell short of that of some Gulf specialists here, notably a former top Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst for Near Eastern and South Asia. Writing in the Financial Times just after the controversial running of the Formula One race in Bahrain last month, Emile Nakhleh urged the administration to begin pulling the fleet out now.

FULL ARTICLE (IPS) 

Photo:defense.gov/Wikimedia Commons  

20 Apr
NPR | Despite Protests, Bahrain Hosts Grand Prix Race
A year after an uprising threatened Bahrain’s monarchy, the royal family is hosting a Formula One Grand Prix race this Sunday as it attempts to show life has returned to normal.
But racing fans will have to make their way through ranks of police and soldiers who are part of a heavy security presence. And riot police have been using tear gas, stun grenades and birdshot to hold back demonstrations around the capital city, Manama.
FULL ARTICLE (NPR) 

NPR | Despite Protests, Bahrain Hosts Grand Prix Race

A year after an uprising threatened Bahrain’s monarchy, the royal family is hosting a Formula One Grand Prix race this Sunday as it attempts to show life has returned to normal.

But racing fans will have to make their way through ranks of police and soldiers who are part of a heavy security presence. And riot police have been using tear gas, stun grenades and birdshot to hold back demonstrations around the capital city, Manama.

FULL ARTICLE (NPR) 

19 Apr
AFP | Bahrain unrest intensifies ahead of Grand Prix 
DUBAI — As Bahrain prepares to host this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix, demands by protesters for democratic change are intensifying and the government position is hardening, setting the Gulf kingdom on a path to confrontation, analysts say.
Shiite-led street demonstrations have turned increasingly violent, as the ruling Sunni Khalifa dynasty continues its crackdown on dissent in a desperate effort to portray that all is well in the island kingdom ahead of Sunday’s race.
Regional allies, mainly Saudi Arabia, are lending the Khalifas a helping hand, while the United States has mostly turned a blind eye to the unrest, two key factors, analysts say, that have contributed to the current unrest.
The crisis is set against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which see the success, or failure, of Bahrain’s protests as a key piece of the puzzle in regional hegemony.
There is a “pretty clear escalation,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, which this week released a conflict risk alert on Bahrain.
Several factors are feeding fears of escalating unrest, he argued.
"The (political) stalemate is continuing," and a steady pace of protests are ending in clashes, as protesters use fire bombs and security forces use tear gas and pellet guns, Hiltermann added.
According to Amnesty International, at least 60 people have been killed since the explosion of Bahrain’s Arab Spring-style uprising in February 2011.
Bahrain’s majority Shiites claim discrimination and marginalisation by the Sunni monarchy, and recent promises of reform by King Hamad have not been implemented, while attempts at a national dialogue with the opposition have amounted to nothing.
And as Formula One teams arrive in the kingdom, the opposition and the increasingly radical youth are calling for mass protests, using the world famous sporting event to shed light on their struggle.
FULL ARTICLE (AFP)

AFP | Bahrain unrest intensifies ahead of Grand Prix 

DUBAI — As Bahrain prepares to host this weekend’s Formula One Grand Prix, demands by protesters for democratic change are intensifying and the government position is hardening, setting the Gulf kingdom on a path to confrontation, analysts say.

Shiite-led street demonstrations have turned increasingly violent, as the ruling Sunni Khalifa dynasty continues its crackdown on dissent in a desperate effort to portray that all is well in the island kingdom ahead of Sunday’s race.

Regional allies, mainly Saudi Arabia, are lending the Khalifas a helping hand, while the United States has mostly turned a blind eye to the unrest, two key factors, analysts say, that have contributed to the current unrest.

The crisis is set against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which see the success, or failure, of Bahrain’s protests as a key piece of the puzzle in regional hegemony.

There is a “pretty clear escalation,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, which this week released a conflict risk alert on Bahrain.

Several factors are feeding fears of escalating unrest, he argued.

"The (political) stalemate is continuing," and a steady pace of protests are ending in clashes, as protesters use fire bombs and security forces use tear gas and pellet guns, Hiltermann added.

According to Amnesty International, at least 60 people have been killed since the explosion of Bahrain’s Arab Spring-style uprising in February 2011.

Bahrain’s majority Shiites claim discrimination and marginalisation by the Sunni monarchy, and recent promises of reform by King Hamad have not been implemented, while attempts at a national dialogue with the opposition have amounted to nothing.

And as Formula One teams arrive in the kingdom, the opposition and the increasingly radical youth are calling for mass protests, using the world famous sporting event to shed light on their struggle.

FULL ARTICLE (AFP)

18 Apr
Bloomberg | Torched Bank Forewarns Formula One Racing Into Bahrain Violence
The National Bank of Bahrain’s branch in the town of Jidhafs is boarded up after it was firebombed twice in the week before the country hosts Formula One motor-racing. Across one of the shutters, attackers spray- painted the word: “Avoid.”
Acts of violence have intensified in the run-up to the April 22 Grand Prix, the biggest international event in the island kingdom since a crackdown last year on pro-democracy protests led by the Shiite Muslim majority. Last year’s race in Bahrain was canceled due to the clashes.
For Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, hosting auto teams such as Mercedes and Red Bull and drivers including championship leader Lewis Hamilton is an opportunity to persuade investors that the unrest is in the past and the country is open for business. The wave of attacks undermines that argument and suggests tensions persist, with Shiite groups pledging to step up protests under the global media spotlight that Formula One brings.
Political unrest has already slowed growth in Bahrain and its escalation “would be a serious blow to the economy,” Sergey Dergachev, who helps manage $8.5 billion of emerging- market debt at Union Investment Privatfonds in Frankfurt, wrote in an e-mail this week.
Since the start of last year, Bahrain’s main stock index has dropped about 20 percent, 10 times the decline on the Bloomberg regional benchmark. The cost of insuring its debt via credit default swaps has doubled.
FULL ARTICLE (Bloomberg)
Video Still: Feb14Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

Bloomberg | Torched Bank Forewarns Formula One Racing Into Bahrain Violence

The National Bank of Bahrain’s branch in the town of Jidhafs is boarded up after it was firebombed twice in the week before the country hosts Formula One motor-racing. Across one of the shutters, attackers spray- painted the word: “Avoid.”

Acts of violence have intensified in the run-up to the April 22 Grand Prix, the biggest international event in the island kingdom since a crackdown last year on pro-democracy protests led by the Shiite Muslim majority. Last year’s race in Bahrain was canceled due to the clashes.

For Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, hosting auto teams such as Mercedes and Red Bull and drivers including championship leader Lewis Hamilton is an opportunity to persuade investors that the unrest is in the past and the country is open for business. The wave of attacks undermines that argument and suggests tensions persist, with Shiite groups pledging to step up protests under the global media spotlight that Formula One brings.

Political unrest has already slowed growth in Bahrain and its escalation “would be a serious blow to the economy,” Sergey Dergachev, who helps manage $8.5 billion of emerging- market debt at Union Investment Privatfonds in Frankfurt, wrote in an e-mail this week.

Since the start of last year, Bahrain’s main stock index has dropped about 20 percent, 10 times the decline on the Bloomberg regional benchmark. The cost of insuring its debt via credit default swaps has doubled.

FULL ARTICLE (Bloomberg)

Video Still: Feb14Gallery/Wikimedia Commons

ABC News | Sport as propaganda: Bahrain’s vile Grand Prix
The relationship between international sporting events and repressive governments can be truly vile. The latest reminder of this is the decision by Formula One to hold the Bahrain Grand Prix for 2012 this weekend.
The race will be held smack in the middle of daily protests against the Bahrain regime - a regime which is trying to avoid being washed away by the same pro-democracy tide that has seen the end of many of its autocratic neighbours.
Formula One cancelled the event in 2011 because the Bahraini government was violently cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrations. Since then, the regime has tried to rehabilitate itself.
Bahrain wants to stay one step ahead of the Arab Spring. It commissioned an independent inquiry into allegations of torture and violence during the crackdown. The inquiry reported in November last year, and recommended a range of modest judicial and policing reforms.
But Bahrain shouldn’t get off that easily. There are still 14 opposition leaders and hundreds of others in prison for participating in last year’s protests. There are still daily clashes between protesters and police. There are still continuing human rights abuses. Foreign reporters still have their entry into the country strictly limited.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights says there have been 31 deaths – including three from torture – since the independent inquiry released its recommendations.
FULL ARTICLE (ABC News) 

ABC News | Sport as propaganda: Bahrain’s vile Grand Prix

The relationship between international sporting events and repressive governments can be truly vile. The latest reminder of this is the decision by Formula One to hold the Bahrain Grand Prix for 2012 this weekend.

The race will be held smack in the middle of daily protests against the Bahrain regime - a regime which is trying to avoid being washed away by the same pro-democracy tide that has seen the end of many of its autocratic neighbours.

Formula One cancelled the event in 2011 because the Bahraini government was violently cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrations. Since then, the regime has tried to rehabilitate itself.

Bahrain wants to stay one step ahead of the Arab Spring. It commissioned an independent inquiry into allegations of torture and violence during the crackdown. The inquiry reported in November last year, and recommended a range of modest judicial and policing reforms.

But Bahrain shouldn’t get off that easily. There are still 14 opposition leaders and hundreds of others in prison for participating in last year’s protests. There are still daily clashes between protesters and police. There are still continuing human rights abuses. Foreign reporters still have their entry into the country strictly limited.

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights says there have been 31 deaths – including three from torture – since the independent inquiry released its recommendations.

FULL ARTICLE (ABC News)